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Statistics Versus Stories: The Invisibility Of Missing Migrants

What happens when someone dies? Usually, their body is found and reported to the authorities, who then investigate the death and record their findings in a forensic database. Their families often mourn the passing by posting an obituary in the local newspaper and holding a funeral, according to their cultural traditions, to bear witness to their life.

What happens when a migrant dies is something else entirely.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, collects data on migrant fatalities through its Missing Migrants Project. The project, based at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre in Berlin, has documented more than 27,000 deaths and disappearances during migration worldwide since 2014. We collect data on migrants who have died at state borders, or in the process of migrating to an international destination, regardless of their legal status. However, the deaths that we record are primarily of people who died or went missing while migrating irregularly.

One of the most difficult aspects of working on this topic is knowing that people die in ones and twos every day — yet because in isolation these deaths are so few, the larger phenomenon of death during migration goes largely unnoticed. What happens when a migrant dies rarely resembles the usual process of post-mortem processing, grief, and remembrance. Missing Migrants Project data are often reported as aggregate figures, which newspapers then tout with headlines like “Record 5,000 people died in Mediterranean in 2016” and “Hundreds of child migrants recorded dead in recent years.” While these headlines are sensational, they ignore the fact that behind every migrant death is an individual: a father, daughter, friend or fellow-traveller who, irrespective of how they died, has a story that may never be told.

This May, we held a social media campaign to highlight the stories of the individuals behind the data in the Missing Migrants Project database. For every migrant death recorded by our team, we shared as much as we knew about that person and the circumstances of their death in English, French, and Spanish on our Twitter and Facebook pages. Over the course of the month, these stories led to a total of 172 Tweets and 51 Facebook posts — a dramatic increase over the dozen-or-so stories we usually post each month.

Sadly, few of our posts during the campaign highlighting individual migrant deaths received much attention, with fewer than 10 shares, though there were two notable exceptions. Mawda was a 2-year-old Iraqi Kurd who was killed while sitting on her mother’s lap in a van travelling from Belgium to the UK. Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old woman originally from an indigenous community in a remote region of Guatemala, was shot and killed at the US-Mexico border only three weeks after leaving home for the first time in her life.

The stories of these young women are impactful because they are just that — stories. Stories have the power to bring attention to the individual human being behind each death. Multiple newspaper articles were published about these migrants in the wake of their deaths with details from their families and friends, not only in the context of migration, but about their lives before they left home.

Too often, the data we collect for the Missing Migrants Project is anonymous: of the 121 people whose deaths we recorded in May, identifying information was available for only ten individuals. Of the deaths we recorded in May, we know that 33 were men, 8 were women, and 15 were children. For another 69 who died during migration in May — more than half of that month’s total count — no personal details were available. That means we don’t know the sex or age of these individuals, let alone their names. We don’t know where they were from and who they left behind. We know only the barest details of their deaths, but lack any information on the complex, meaningful lives they lived.

For Mawda and Claudia, we know their stories: they were human beings, with clear and individual identities. All too often, when someone dies during migration, we can only report that “a migrant” died, rather than say “a mother of four”, “a young man”, or “an aspiring artist” lost their life. This is one of the things that came across most powerfully during our May campaign: how little we know about migrants who die, and how this lack of information renders these people invisible.

The anonymity of these migrants affects the public perception of the larger issue: the scale of migrant deaths and disappearances worldwide is too large to comprehend by simply looking at summary figures. Too often, migrant bodies are lost at sea or during overland journeys through remote terrain. Many disappearances during migration are never investigated by the authorities. Most families of missing migrants are never given the option to visit their loved one’s final resting place, if they are notified of the death at all.

So, what happens when a migrant dies? In many cases, no body is found. No record is made. No story is told. Families face the ambiguity of a loss they may never resolve, and migrants disappear without any acknowledgement of their humanity.

Our social media campaign in May reminded us that for each of the 27,437 deaths and disappearances recorded in our database, there is an individual with their own strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and life story. It reminds us that when data on migrant deaths are expressed so often as summary figures, this erases the dignity of those who died in their search for better lives. It is important to bear witness to the individuality of each person represented in the database. We need to understand the individual stories behind each death to fully realize the impact of the global tragedy of migrant deaths.

Julia Black coordinates the //medium.com/@UNmigration/missingmigrants.iom.int" data-href="/missingmigrants.iom.int" class="markup--anchor markup--p-anchor" target="_blank">Missing Migrants Project for IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC). She is a co-editor of IOM’s most recent reports on migrant deaths and identification, parts 1 and 2 of Fatal Journeys Volume 3.

Marta Sánchez Dionis works as a Project Officer for IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. Previously, she worked with several human rights organizations on issues of migration, gender and access to justice.

Fonte: Medium


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